Friday, April 10, 2009

CIRM To Censor Confrontational Comments on its Facebook Site

Call it stem cell cyberspace – California style.

The $3 billion California stem cell agenda has embarked on a major foray into the Internet's social networking scene. It now has a fairly hefty presence on Facebook, YouTube and Flickr – all part of the expansion of its communications and public relations operations.

CIRM's Internet doppelgangers represent a creative attempt to use the latest tools to reach a wide audience, including those who might not necessarily tune into the old-fashioned print media.

But the Facebook account raises a significant public policy issue: Should taxpayer funds be used for a Web page that explicitly warns that a state agency (CIRM) will censor comments that it does not like?

Here is what the stem cell agency says on Facebook:

"CIRM's Facebook page is a place to learn more about stem cell research in California and around the world. We encourage comments on the science in our posts and our blog entries and will post regular responses from CIRM's in-house scientists or from our grantees. We will remove posts that are confrontational in nature."(Our boldface)
We asked Don Gibbons, the agency's chief communications officer and the man responsible for the cyberspace outreach, four questions about CIRM's policy on "confrontational" posts.
"How does CIRM define confrontational?

"Is it appropriate for public state agency to restrict commentary on taxpayer-funded scientific and policy matters?

"Is such a ban in keeping with the best standards for discussion of scientific matters?

"Do you know of any other state agency with such a policy?"
Gibbons replied,
"Our policy is essentially the same as yours. The goal of the site is to foster free and open discussion of the science. We will be very conservative in deciding to remove posts, reserving that action for anything that unfairly questions the integrity of our funded researchers or of stem cell science in general. Compare it to you taking down the recent posting about President Obama on your site."
Aside from the fact that the California Stem Cell Report is not funded by taxpayers or any business or organization, CIRM misses the point.

By warning its Facebook readers that their comments could be expunged, CIRM stifles legitimate commentary about CIRM's operations. It is as if the state began publishing a newspaper and warned the public that it would not print letters from readers or op-ed pieces that it deemed confrontational or unfair.

Beyond that, science -- not to mention government -- requires a robust dialog. One researcher's questions may be considered confrontational or unfair by another whose work is being scrutinized. Does that mean that the concerns should not be voiced in a public way? (See this link for an interesting related lawsuit.)

Yes, the Internet is a wild place. People say many rash things in cyberspace, and there is a problem with commentary that can be obscene and racist as was the case in the Obama comment that we deleted from the California Stem Cell Report. But obscenity and racism are a far cry from comments that are confrontational or unfair.

How will CIRM handle a comment from a person who deeply believes that hESC research involves the destruction of human life, says something to that effect on the Facebook page and suggests that hESC scientists are baby-killers? How will it deal with a comment that says the CIRM board of directors is riddled with conflicts of interest and the agency should be abolished.? Would the agency allow remarks from the scathing column about CIRM that recently appeared in the Los Angeles Times? Would the agency allow comments from stem cell scientists that suggest it is going badly awry in an endeavor to cozy up to the biotech industry?

All of those comments could be considered unfair or confrontational.

The problem here is not with the Facebook page. It is with the fact that CIRM is allowing comments to be posted on the page and supposedly encouraging them, but only if they are "correct" in the eyes of some at CIRM.

Web sites have been wrestling with the problem of untrammeled commentary since the 1990s. A variety of controls have emerged on private sites. But private Web sites are a wholly different animal than a Web site funded by taxpayers.

CIRM should encourage the broadest of commentary on its Facebook page and as well on its main home page. From time to time, it may well have to delete a comment that is obscene, racist or libelous.

But it should narrowly define what it would remove. Comments that are confrontational or unfair should not be censored. And comments that question "the integrity of ... stem cell science in general" certainly should be allowed. CIRM can and should rebut comments. That is the value of open dialog, which is paramount to a successful democracy.

We welcome comments on this and all other topics, confrontational or otherwise. You can make them by clicking on the word "comments" below. Anonymous comments are permitted.

(Editor's note: Gibbons' response also made reference to an item that we deleted last month along with a related comment from him. We posted notes explaining the deletions. You can find them here. For more on the CIRM's cyberspace efforts, see the item below.)

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  1. Don Gibbons11:31 AM

    Your ability to find negative in something positive never ceases to amaze me. If you had been diligent in reviewing all our social media and seen the dialogue that has taken place with a moral critic of embryonic stem cells on our YouTube site, you would not have written this speculative rubbish. That dialogue is linked off the Alan Lewis diabetes video.

  2. Thank you, Don, for your comment. Bravo to CIRM for leaving up that comment on the Lewis video.
    It was indeed harsh. The continuing presence (it first appeared yesterday) of that comment demonstrates that CIRM can survive without censoring confrontational language.

    The problem with the Facebook page is that it puts the state of California in the position of telling readers that they cannot make comments like that on a taxpayer-funded Web site. The state should not be in the position of saying what can and cannot be said on important issues of the day.

  3. The oblique reference to the Cha / Flamm matter is informative to the matter at hand. Flamm's primary concern was with one article co-authored by Cha which involved the impact of prayer on pregnancies through IVF. The Journal of Reproductive Medicine (JRM), which published the study (K.Y. Cha, D.P. Wirth, and R.A. Lobo, "Does prayer influence the success of in vitro fertilization-embryo transfer?" 46:781-787, 2001), not only refused to publish letters critical of it, they refused to even acknowledge their receipt. As months went by the JRM steadfastly refused to respond to e-mails, calls, or letters about the study. Wirth later went to federal prison [on an unrelated matter] and Lobo denied significant involvement in the JRM paper, but the paper remained, unretracted. Flamm got into trouble with Cha primarily for a remark about a DIFFERENT paper co-authored by Cha.
    See for example

    The better policy, as David Jensen suggests, is one of open discussion of issues. When dialog is suppressed, one wonders "why." As an aside, the '639 patent litigation illustrates how much money can be wasted when a simple error is not corrected.